by Gavin St Pier
‘THE Bailiff made me cry on Thursday morning’ was the verdict on last week’s assisted-dying debate in Jersey. I didn’t hear the debate in the States Assembly but I am delighted that it was as serious, respectful and high quality as both Guernsey’s debate in 2018 and the topic deserves. Sufficiently so to move the Channel Island treasure that is Gary Burgess to write those words and to tears.
Although Guernsey’s similar attempt only three short years ago failed, much to my disappointment, I have a little pride and take quiet satisfaction knowing that our debate helped catalyse the discussion in Jersey, which culminated in last week’s vote. I share the Jersey’s campaigners’ joy and thank them for their tenacity; and I salute Jersey’s parliamentarians, who voted by a significant majority with integrity, recognising that there is no vanity in suffering. By agreeing to give terminally ill adults who have the capacity improved choices in their final days, they not only recognised the will of the majority in the community, as evidenced by both opinion polls and the Citizens’ Assembly on the topic, but they also demonstrated compassion, boldness and bravery to become the leading jurisdiction in the British Isles on the issue. Jersey is, rightly, enjoying some very positive national and international coverage following the vote.
I should, at this juncture, reach out to the minority of the community who are opposed. The strength of view for some is such that I know some of you will have found the decision abhorrent, sickening even. I respect those views and perspective but ask that you similarly respect the views of the majority with whom you disagree. Like a same-sex relationship or equal marriage, you will retain the autonomy and prerogative not to make such a choice for yourself if you do not wish to do so. The exercise by others of a choice you would not yourself make does not diminish either you or your values. But, ironically perhaps, you do diminish your values if you would deny others a choice they would wish to make for themselves.
However, campaigners cannot be satisfied or complacent having won the vote. They cannot be naïve or rest on their laurels. The decision was only to proceed ‘in principle’ and so subsequent votes will be required after Jersey’s general election next year. The supporters of end-of-life choice for the terminally ill will need to redouble their efforts in 2022. Those who are opposed to this development cannot allow Jersey to proceed and succeed with implementing a law. It must be stopped. They know that where Jersey leads, others will certainly follow. They have much, much deeper pockets and they will use them to throw everything – everything – at scuppering this development. Some of them will intentionally use the emotionally charged, inflammatory language of euthanasia to draw parallels, stated or unstated, with the self-evidently non-consensual pursuit of eugenics by the Nazis. They will use the language of fear when talking about ‘slippery slopes’ and ‘thin end of the wedge’ to imply that individuals will not in fact be in control. Some will highlight cases from other jurisdictions and read them across to Jersey’s proposed regime, without acknowledging that other places have chosen to define the limits of their legislation differently. They will say that the law will devalue and diminish those with disabilities, not conceding that many with disabilities would wish, if terminally ill, to have the same choice in this arena as their able-bodied, terminally ill friends and neighbours. There will be a lot of talk about safeguards being inadequate. Whatever and however many of them there are, they will never agree that they are adequate. The grim presentation is that everyone who is terminally ill is prey to someone in their family who will want them out of the way, when the reality of course is that in most families, the pressure, if there if is any, is far more likely for the individual to ‘keep going’, because those who are left behind are never quite ready to say that final goodbye. They will never concede that our populations are living – and dying – today in an unregulated environment without safeguards. There are terminally ill individuals who take – or attempt to take – their lives with or without the knowledge and help of their families; and some will be taking themselves off to Dignitas in Switzerland to die away from home, if they have a spare £10k to pay for it. (That inequity is never recognised by those opposed to change.) They will say that it is too complicated for Jersey to lead on this because the doctors are regulated outside the Island, notwithstanding the General Medical Council have made it clear they regulate within the law, so if the law changes, they will adapt their regulation accordingly. They will say doctors are opposed. Some are; many, of course, are not. Those who are, will, as with abortion, have the well-trodden and effective protected right not to participate.
Whether voters support or oppose the decision last week, if this is an issue which is important to them, I would advise that they very carefully question all the candidates in next year’s general election about their position on the proposal approved in principle. Be aware that if any candidate gives an ambiguous response, they are doing so with the intent of allowing themselves to vote in a way that might disappoint the person asking the question. It is just possible that a few of those who voted ‘pour’ last week might have done so knowing it is an issue which commands clear majority popular support, which they would not wish to lose this side of an election, while banking that the vote was ‘only in principle’, so retaining the wriggle room to say next year, ‘sorry, it’s not quite what I was expecting’.
When the next generation of parliamentarians gathers on this issue after the election, I hope they will have the strength to hold fast in the face of organised, well funded and vocal opposition, remembering where the public will lies. And remembering too the views of those in their community who have faced terminal illness, who wanted but were denied the comfort of having more choice at the end of their life. Among them, Alain du Chemin, who I did not know; and Gary Burgess, who I was fortunate enough a few weeks ago to spend a happy, indelible 15 minutes, socially distanced chatting to on his front step. When we parted, we didn’t say the words that normally slip so easily when one parts company, ‘see you soon’. That brought a tear to my eye. And I will cry again thinking of him, if and when Jersey completes the journey it started last week and implements a law that he may or may not have chosen to use.
Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.